Thursday, August 07, 2003


Ronald Johnson's final work The Shrubberies is a text of exceptional concision very much in the vein of Louis Zukofsky's parallel text 80 Flowers. One could make a convincing case for Johnson as a major poet on this volume alone, were it not for all the other wonderful works he has left us.


The central pleasure in reading The Shrubberies comes from watching a master of condensare at the height of his powers:








of holly


Simple as this seems, this poem hinges on the move from the single syllable words of the first five lines to the tactile transformation of “prickle.” Thus it would have been a completely different poem — and very much a lesser one — to have put “of” on its own line, whereas here, as the first of three soft syllables, it lends the poem's last line exactly the flourish it needs.


Similarly, “Two Seasons,” one of the relatively few poems to have a title, is a marvel of the sensuousness of language, the tone leading of vowels in consort with the physicality of consonants:


cardinal and bluejay

interloping same bush

shaking forsythia

in goldened shower


eternal summers

wren wrench song

on risen bough

after recent rain


There is almost no occasion in which the hand-crafted descriptor “goldened” is going to sound anything less than silly, but Johnson has found the perfect instance here. And The Shrubberies is filled with such occasions.


Johnson was exceptionally fortunate to have discovered Peter O'Leary, now his literary executor, and whose work here as editor has given us the most sustained volume Johnson would ever produce. Would that Robert Duncan or even Zukofsky shared such fortune.


O'Leary's afterword is remarkably straightforward in its account of the editing. Johnson explicitly instructed O'Leary to “prune the shrubs” of a “great shaggy manuscript,” and prune he has. The result, to follow this analogy out, is closer to the topiary of the Longwood Gardens of the Duponts than, say, to the bramble-ridden overgrowth of Olson's Dogtown in Gloucester. The original manuscript consisted “of 229 pages and perhaps 300 poems.” As published, the volume consists of 124 poems over 126 pages, really a radical distillation the implications of which I will come back to in a moment.


Johnson, according to Leary, appears to have considered two schemes for the organization of the volume, one a record of the seasons, the other a characteristically Johnsonian tour of an imagined ideal garden. Yet there are poems here —


on the screen

the primal scene

a scream of out


that absolutely fall outside of either strategy. To complicate matters, Johnson himself never settled on a final strategy and appears to have been inconsistent in his marginal notations regarding placement of individual poems. All of this is, however, completely consistent with the Ronald Johnson I knew in San Francisco over twenty years, a man of brilliant gifts who at moments appeared to be utterly lacking in judgment. And, indeed, even in these short pieces that are so tightly condensed, there are pieces that just scream for a further edit:


beyond, a Province of wheat

and streams to grind the grain

fields framed by scarlet poppies

and bluest bachelor-buttons

and borderline to the stars


I want to strike that final “and” with the thickest red pen I have as well as to question the en dash in the penultimate line. Also I would strike that upper-case P. And it all makes me wonder — if this poem gets into the final selection of 124 pieces, what exactly did O'Leary leave out?


And that, I think, will be the final drama of this work, the simple knowledge that there exist perhaps 175 additional poems not included here. I would not be surprised to see a cottage industry of sorts spring up to get some or all of these works out into journals & webzines over the next few years. Perhaps someday FSG books will decide to issue the Complete Poems of a good poet (or Flood Editions, which has become the most responsible publisher for all things Projectivist [which is how you might describe Johnson were he not so visibly influenced by Zukofsky], or perhaps even Talisman House) will issue the Complete Ronald Johnson, and thus will give us the “great shaggy manuscript.” Until then, this diamond hard concentration will represent the final sweep of one of the great lives of poetry of our time.

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